About 7,800 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 127th spring commencement this Saturday, May 22. Students from around the world with diverse cultural backgrounds, students who have faced adversity, and students who have conquered their dreams will come together to share in the spirit of commencement.
Each student has a unique story.
Here are nine of those stories, profiling graduates who have overcome obstacles, discovered new dimensions and doggedly pursued their academic goals.
Learn more about the 127th spring commencement at The University of Texas at Austin.
A need for speed accelerated academic success for Julia Dawson
For most people, receiving a speeding ticket is an annoyance at best. For Julia Dawson, a speeding ticket accelerated her opportunities past college graduation.
Her goal now: to become the first woman to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Dawson’s racing career started when, as a high school senior, she received a ticket for going 30 miles per hour over the speed limit. Instead of taking away the car keys, her father sent her to racing school.
“He said, ‘If you’re going to drive fast, you need to go somewhere safe to do it,'” Dawson said.
In less than a year, she progressed from novice student to driving instructor. She soon obtained her racing license and began racing on the amateur level in 2006. By 2008, she drove in her first professional series and has been competing professionally ever since. Now she drives late model stock cars in the UARA (United Auto Racing Association) Stars Series.
Meanwhile, Dawson studied mechanical engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering.
She maintained a high grade-point average while working with engineering advisers and professors to reduce her course load and avoid Friday classes. Dawson, who graduates this month, aspires to be a paid driver, but engineering isn’t just a back-up plan. Thinking as an engineer helps her diagnose problems with her car and communicate with her team.
On the other hand, she said, her technical knowledge represents only a part of what she gained at the university.
“Working full time while going to school taught me discipline and perseverance,” she said. “The engineering community provided valuable friendships. There were times when I was tired or injured or sick and still had to work the equivalent of an 80-hour week. Amazing professors and fellow students inspired and encouraged me to keep going.”
By Becky Rische
Cockrell School of Engineering
Ben Chater embraced challenges to overcome physical disability and earn law degree
Ben Chater recently delivered his final oral argument in Law Professor David Robertson’s seven-person Maritime Injuries Litigation seminar. Dressed in a dark suit, the 26-year-old moved to the front of the class prepared to embrace another challenge — just one of many he has sought while overcoming obstacles most people would find unimaginable.
Chater, who was born with cerebral palsy, has a lifelong physical disability. He is unable to speak clearly and has difficulty controlling his arms and legs. He uses a power wheelchair, and requires help with almost all of his daily personal needs. Chater hires and manages seven people to assist him with grooming, eating and other daily tasks.
He also must juggle the rigorous demands of law school: reading, researching and writing. Chater opens books, turns pages and types papers (15-20 words a minute) on a laptop using a “headstick,” an aluminum rod with a custom tip attached to a headband.
“We all have to play the hand we were dealt,” said Chater, a native of Montpelier, Vt. “My goal for life is to figure out how to play my hand as best I possibly can.”
Chater has done extraordinarily well academically, and participates in intramural mock trial competitions, serves as the submissions editor for the student journal Texas Review of Litigation, and works 20 hours a week as a criminal law clerk at the Travis County Attorney’s Office. Chater, who plans to take the Texas Bar Exam in July, would like to eventually practice as an appellate attorney.
Chater’s attitude is always cited by classmates, law faculty and staff as consistently being more positive than anyone else they know.
“He is an extraordinarily humble person and never, ever complains about his condition or even alludes to the fact that law school might be more difficult for him than other law students, ” said Bob Dolehide, a close friend and classmate.
Although Chater speaks more slowly than his classmates and faces rigid time limits, he’s learned to be more deliberate and on-point with his arguments and answers questions more directly and succinctly — an asset that helped him win his final maritime case in class.
“I thrive on challenge,” Chater said. “I’ve learned in law school, and in life, how much you can accomplish if you actively seek out and embrace challenges.”
By Laura Castro
School of Law
Growing up in Kenya, Willy Kiptemboi Rotich has become a UT first
Willy Kiptemboi Rotich has come a long way — almost 8,860 miles to be exact.
Born in the Rift River Valley of Kenya, the fifth of eight children, he never dreamt as a boy he’d grow up to live in the United States, be a poet and receive a doctor’s degree from one of the top research universities in the country.
In Kenya, more than half of the 33 million residents bring home barely $1 a day in wages, and many live in cardboard box hovels with no running water, electricity, health care or access to education. Subject to devastating droughts and political instability, the area seems to offer an inauspicious beginning, even for a precocious boy.
According to Rotich, his older brother was his model for success, attending high school and getting an undergraduate degree from Kenyatta University. Rotich was inspired to follow in his brother’s footsteps and pressed on to obtain a master’s degree in kinesiology halfway around the world at Louisiana State University (LSU). Kenya is known internationally for producing the most outstanding distance runners in the world, so Rotich’s academic focus on the study of human movement and physical activity was, in a way, a link to home.
Following his LSU mentor, Dr. Louis Harrison Jr., to The University of Texas at Austin, Rotich completed a doctorate in physical education teacher education, and when he graduates this May he will be the first University of Texas at Austin student to receive that degree.
Now a faculty member at St. Bonaventure University in New York, Rotich enjoys a level of professional accomplishment that precious few with his background have achieved. Although he’s far from home, Kenya lingers in his heart and mind, inspiring impassioned poetry about his native country and its political climate.
By Kay Randall
College of Education
Cancer survivor and grandmother Susan Orrell made her dream come true
Susan Orrell — accountant, high school chemistry teacher, grandmother of seven and breast cancer survivor — is finally making her life-long dream of becoming a pharmacist come true.
Orrell had been accepted into two pharmacy schools in the 1970s, but life circumstances interfered. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided the time was right and applied to The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy.
“Too few people get the opportunity to pursue their life-long dreams,” she said. “I see pharmacy as a culmination of my earlier careers in business and teaching rather than as a change in careers.”
Orrell wants to some day work as a pharmacist at an oncology center. She believes the strongest aspect of her personality is her empathy and compassion for others, especially the sick and injured.
“Having breast cancer gave me a chance to reflect and realize I was fortunate to be alive,” said Orrell, whose cancer was discovered by a mammogram when she was in her 40s.
“My medical team, including a pharmacist, practiced medicine as a collaborative effort. That’s the way I would like to do it — be an active member of my patient’s health care team.”
Pharmacy is a wealth of knowledge and information, said Orrell, who is graduating with honors in the PharmD (doctor of pharmacy) program, “and a pharmacist actually gets to use, apply and share that knowledge daily.”
Considering the diversity and number of drugs, it will be necessary to stay on top of new developments on a day-to-day basis, said Orrell.
“That will give me the opportunity to keep learning all my life.”
By Nancy Neff
College of Pharmacy
Losing his vision in 2001, Martin Kareithi became a pioneer for accessibility
Martin Kareithi lost his vision in a car accident after his first year as an undergraduate at Texas AandM University at Galveston in 2001. After reconstructive surgery and several months of rest and recovery, Kareithi moved to Austin where he received vocational rehabilitation training at the Criss Cole Rehab Center for the blind.
In 2002, Martin transferred to The University of Texas at Austin where he received two undergraduate degrees in philosophy and government. Now Kareithi is receiving a master’s of public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
Since the loss of his vision, Kareithi has worked closely with blind persons of all ages, assisting with vocational training and independent living training. As a student in the LBJ School, Kareithi has been a pioneer for accessibility, helping the administration re-label all of the classrooms and offices with braille labels during the school’s building renovation.
Kareithi has interned with A Glimmer of Hope Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that focuses on bringing water, health care and education to Ethiopia. He plans to continue working with other blind persons and hopes his graduate degree in public affairs will enable him to assist a larger community.
“The LBJ School has opened up many possibilities for me to work within the nonprofit sector to serve a greater public,” Kareithi said. “In what capacity? I don’t quite know yet. Maybe one day I’ll start a blind school for children in Africa, who knows.”
By Kerri Battles
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
Jessica Lee traversed the globe to discover her academic niche
Jessica Lee, a graduating Plan II, Russian language and culture student, always dreamt of making the world a better place, but it took many adventures — from hopping on the Trans-Siberian railway on a whim, to haphazardly taking on a job as a beat reporter for the Moscow Times — for her to discover her niche in life.
“My experiences abroad really inspired me to work in politics, travel the world and help people in developing countries,” said Lee, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in international relations and someday hopes to work in the diplomatic corps. “When I realized I could pursue all these passions in the Foreign Service, I just knew it was a perfect fit.”
After her freshman year, the Houston native participated in a study abroad program in Austria and took a four-week detour in Africa to help AIDS victims in remote hospitals. In 2008, she enrolled in a yearlong study abroad program in Moscow, where she lived with a Russian grandmother and learned to speak fluent Russian.
Driven to help find a cure for AIDS, Lee initially majored in chemistry. But after traversing the globe and connecting with people in underdeveloped countries, she decided to shift her focus to diplomacy.
Despite the language barriers, sudden detours and various misadventures Lee had encountered on her overseas excursions, she said the experiences helped her discover a wealth of opportunities for changing the world outside of a lab.
“The great thing about studying abroad is that you get to push your comfort zones and learn more about yourself,” Lee said. “How are you going to know what you’re going to do when you don’t know who you are now?”
By Jessica Sinn
College of Liberal Arts
Iraq veteran James Eadie applied his curriculum to challenges of the world
James Eadie is a jack-of-all-trades.
Bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of Michigan, medical degree from Harvard, two tours in Iraq with the Air Force as a physician in a trauma center, and now he’s graduating with an Executive Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the McCombs School of Business.
But for Eadie, who is joining life-science venture capital firm Santé Ventures after graduation, those paths aren’t so disparate.
“Hopefully as time goes on I’ll bring in the perspective of having practiced medicine for 10 years, having run and started a business and now the knowledge I have from my formal business education,” Eadie said.
He’s clearly capable of balancing a full plate. While a student, Eadie kept busy running a medical practice with his wife, teaching resident physicians in San Antonio the business basics of owning a practice and spending weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit with his premature second son, Dylan. Dylan is doing just fine now, and Eadie has valuable lessons to take with him.
“The real-world challenges of being a small business owner during the economic crisis melded tremendously with the theoretical and technical skills I was learning through the MBA curriculum,” Eadie said.
“School has taken a blank wall and put a lot of windows and doors in it. I can see out. I can open doors,” he said. “And I can now begin to venture through these doors into areas that I couldn’t have before because I didn’t know they existed.”
By Amber Walkowiak
McCombs School of Business
After career in opera, John Perry returned to UT to help the LGBT community
The last time John Perry was a student at The University of Texas at Austin, he was planning for a career as an opera singer. That was in 1964.
Perry spent more than 30 years performing in Germany, New York City and various other opera houses in the United States. He was Alfredo in “La Traviata,” Rodolfo in “La Boheme,” Faust in “Faust,” Tamino in “The Magic Flute” and Ruiz in “Il Trovatore,” to name a few.
In 2006, Perry returned to the university — this time enrolling in the School of Social Work’s master program.
“My singing career was coming to an end and I wanted to find something else that would be fulfilling in a completely different fashion from my music,” said Perry, who intends to practice as a licensed therapist.
When Perry did not have performance shows “on the boards,” rehearsals for the Metropolitan Opera extra chorus or voice lessons, he volunteered at various nonprofit organizations in New York. He began to see first-hand the long-term damage that can be done by domestic violence, substance abuse and homelessness, among other social problems.
His experience became much more personal and intense during the 1990s as he began therapy, which ultimately resulted in the dissolution of his marriage of 30 years and his coming to terms with being a gay man.
Perry wants to help counsel gay men and those who have been sexually abused as children.
“There are few resources for those struggling with sexual orientation issues, although that is beginning to change,” he said.
By Nancy Neff
School of Social Work
Former powerlifter Ahmed Abukhater fights for water rights in Palestine
Born in the Palestinian city of Rafah, Ahmed Abukhater grew up in a world where water was scarce and violence was not.
Water rights in Abukhater’s hometown are owned by their long-time adversaries, the Israelis, meaning Abukhater was raised not only in a world of ceaseless violence, but in a world of dire environmental inequity.
Nine years ago, determined to change his destiny and, in turn, the destiny of his people, Abukhater forged a path that will culminate this week in the awarding of his doctorate in community and regional planning from the School of Architecture.
His doctoral dissertation focuses on international water conflict resolution and the issues of water scarcity and environmental equity.
Arriving in the United States in 2001 as a Clinton Scholar, Abukhater received a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while working as city planner for the city of Champaign.
While attending The University of Texas at Austin, Abukhater initiated and implemented the first campus-wide geographic information system (GIS) for Wi-Fi access and earned a 2008 Cactus Goodfellow Award for his substantial contributions to the university. He also pioneered the way for other Palestinian athletes. He was the first to represent and win for Palestine at the world powerlifting championships, where he set world records in his weight class.
Abukhater has, in his nine-year tenure in the U.S., married, had three sons and begun a career as a community development manager for ESRI, a worldwide company using GIS to address social, economic, business and environmental concerns.
“I want to use my knowledge to help alleviate water stress through equitable allocation of water,” said Abukhater. “And since water rights are a global issue, I hope in the process, to find global solutions.”
By Amy Maverick Crossette
School of Architecture